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M.C. Escher Self Portrait.

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Biography of M.C. Escher

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in Leeuwarden , Netherlands on June 17th , 1898 . He was the youngest son of Sara and George Escher and had four older brothers named Arnold , Johan, Berend, and Edmond . As the son of a civil engineer, growing up, Escher acquired many qualities from his father that would give him a head start in the field of graphic arts – he was exposed to drafting from a young age and was taught many fundamental drawing skills through this. Also, in the small town of Arnhem where he grew up, he worked as an apprentice under carpenters and wood-workers which would be very helpful in the future when he started to work with prints from wood cuts. These early acquired skills helped Escher build his self-confidence and taught him the importance of preciseness and also how to keep a steady hand (Schattschneider).

Escher was very meticulous and neat as a child, as one of his early school teachers observed, “…I remember the care with which this little boy [Escher] had selected the shape, quantity and size of his slices of cheese, so that, fitted one against the other, they would cover as exactly as possible the entire slice of bread” (Robertson, O'Connor). When observing Escher's wide range of work, these foundational skills and traits show through predominantly as the basis of his drawings.

Though, Escher's work is extremely mathematical, he was a very poor student in high school, especially in mathematics and science courses. The only classes that he enjoyed were his art classes, which is where his talents were first recognized. Escher's instructor, F.W. van der Haagen, found his work very intriguing and knew that he had incredible potential, so he decided to direct Escher in making prints from linoleum cuts. Haagen then sent some of these prints to a fellow professor, Roland Holst. After reviewing these prints, Holst advised that Escher attend an architectural school (Ernst).

In 1919, Escher moved to Haarlem and began classes at the School for Architectural and Decorative Arts. Here, he met graphic arts teacher, Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita. After viewing some of Escher's work, Mesquita encouraged him to change his course of study from architecture to the graphic arts. With permission from his parents, Escher did this and began studying graphic arts and printmaking. In the three years of Escher's attendance there, Mesquita taught him as much as he could about wood-cut printing and he also encouraged Escher to experiment extensively with different ideas (Locher). This was very uncommon for the time and type of school, and Maurits was very fortunate to have had this opportunity. Many of the abstract, experimental pieces he created here would be implemented into parts of his later, more famous work.

In 1922, Escher left Haarlem to travel around Italy with a small group of friends. That same year, he visited the Alhambra , a Moorish castle in Grenada , Spain . He was very moved by the Moorish tiling that covered the walls and during his visit made several sketches of them. These patterns inspired him to create his first tessellated drawing, Eight Heads (see Picture Gallery), but he worked with these only for a short while because they took far too much time to complete and he was rarely satisfied with the final product (Smith).

In 1923, during another one of his travels through Italy , Escher met his future wife, Jetta Umiker, in the town of Ravello. They were married in 1924 and settled in Rome . For the next several years, Maurits traveled all over the country drawing and sketching, always gathering new ideas for his artwork. After traveling during the summer, Escher would come back to his studio in Rome and begin the process of transforming these sketches into full drawings, and then into prints ( National Gallery of Art ). With these new drawings, Escher began to experiment more freely with the use of different vantage points, sometimes looking both up and down at the same time, as in High and Low (see Picture Gallery).

Maurits worked in Italy intensively for eleven years and during this time the Eschers had two sons, George and Arthur. Though, in 1935, political tension forced their family to move to Switzerland (Schofield).

Maurits and Jetta both missed the Italian countryside and were unhappy with their new location, so in 1936, they made a deal with the Adria Shipping Company to take them around the Mediterranean on ship. In return for the service, Maurits promised to create advertisements for the company and give them a number of prints from the sketches he would make on the trip. Surprisingly, the company accepted the offer and the Eschers received an essentially free cruise of the Mediterranean (Locher, Veldhuysen).

During this trip, Escher visited the Alhambra again, but he was much more intrigued by the palace this time. He and Jetta were fascinated by the Moorish designs which they spent three days sketching. When later speaking about the Alhambra , Escher said, “…it was the richest source of inspiration I have ever tapped” (Church).

These geometric designs rekindled Escher's interest in repeating patterns and he began to put more focus on creating tessellations. This was a very vital step in Escher's career because much of his work after this visit reflected the Moorish use of the regular division of a plane (Ilter). Here is an excerpt from one of Escher's journals where he described his fascination for tessellations; “It remains an extremely absorbing activity, a real mania to which I have become addicted, and from which I sometimes find it hard to tear myself away” (Cordon Art).

In 1937, after returning from their trip, the Eschers moved to Ukkel , Belgium where their third child, Jan, was born. Here, Maurits' brother, Berend, a university professor of geology, noticed a strong connection between Escher's work and several different mathematical theories. Berend then gave Maurits several different books and journals on mathematical theories which he began to study as references for his work (National Gallery of Art).

Early in 1941, the German army forced the Eschers out of Belgium and they relocated in a peaceful village in the Netherlands called Baarns. This is where Maurits remained for nearly the rest of his life, spending most of his time working in his studio (Ernst).

Over the next thirty years, Escher worked with many different mathematical concepts and continually found new ways to incorporate them into his artwork. In the 1940's, he began experimenting with the concepts of endlessness and three-dimensional objects, which the picture, Depth (see Picture Gallery), displays clearly. In the 1950's, his focus shifted towards tessellations, such as Verbum (see Picture Gallery), and complex geometric figures, like Order and Chaos (see Picture Gallery). During these years, he also began giving lectures all around America and Europe (Ziring).

In the year 1958, Escher met the brilliant mathematician Harold Scott MacDonald Coxeter during one of his lectures. Maurits and Harold became very close and inspired each other throughout their life-long friendship. A year after they met, Escher created the piece titled, Circle Limit III (see Picture Gallery), and showed it to Coxeter. Harold was quite impressed with the preciseness and complexity of this drawing and later mathematically proved that, “…Escher got it absolutely right to the millimeter, absolutely to the millimeter” (Robertson, O'Connor).

Maurits continued working through the next ten years and experimented with more geometrical theories, which resulted in the creation of impossible structures, such as Waterfall (see Picture Gallery). But as Escher grew older, his health began to decline, and by the late 1960's, Escher had been in the hospital several times. His last work was completed in 1969, and in 1970, Escher moved to a village near Baarns called Laren. Here, he lived the last two years of his life until he died on March 27, 1972 (Murphy).

M.C. Escher was a very extraordinary artist who opened up areas of art that were never before dreamed of. In his very complex work, he pulled viewers into new worlds, worlds that don't actually exist. He had a very unique style and he implemented several basic elements of art to make his work clear to those with little or no knowledge of complex mathematics or art.

Though, Escher did experiment with color, the vast majority of his pieces were black and white. This was important because it helped to bring forth the great detail and intricacies of his work. He also avoided using complicated color schemes, which would possibly draw the eye away from the focus of the piece. This also helped emphasize the great contrast between dark and light values, which would have been less noticeable had color been added. Escher used many geometrical shapes and structures which required clear, precise edges, so strong contrasts were a necessity in order to create the sharp, clean lines that prevail in all of his work.

Another principle which Escher applied in all of his work is balance. One way he accomplished this was by placing the same amount of darks and lights on each side of a piece. In the same sense, he also used objects with the same size or shape on either side. Another way he did this was by making the center of the piece the focus point and gradually spreading focus outward from the center. Yet, this led to several different effects in his artwork other than just providing balance. It sometimes produced an exploding or imploding effect, an illuminated or a black hole effect, a pinpoint focus, or a feeling of infinite space (Studio G). The piece titled, Balcony (see Picture Gallery) portrays this quite well.

Along with balance, Escher favored the use of symmetry in many of his pieces. Escher used this idea quite often, and though few of his pieces were mirrored exactly, he still portrayed this element quite effectively. In several pieces of his work, one side of the picture nearly reflected the other. This theme was used predominantly in his tessellated drawings and other works where he focused on the regular division of a plane. One drawing that illustrates this is Circle Limit III (see Picture Gallery).

One more element that Escher paid special attention to was the strong use of line. Lines can be wide or thin, dark or light, sharp and jagged, or smooth and curving. In Escher's pieces, the lines were always very strong and precise. The contrast between dark and light in his lines was outstanding, and this gave his work a very clean and crisp quality which was appreciated by anyone who viewed it. Another advantage of the sharp lines is that all of the angles were perfectly accurate. Escher realized that when drawing a dodecahedron, as in the picture Order and Chaos (see Picture Gallery), anything less than perfect angles could result in a very big problem.

One more way that Escher was able to implement line in his work came naturally with the media he used to make his prints. For several of his prints he used the technique of wood cut, which is sketching out the picture on wood, then “stamping” the cut onto paper. When carving into wood, straight lines are favored, which is another reason why they appear so often in Escher's work.

Another principle that Escher used to make his work interesting was movement. One of the main ways that Escher portrayed movement was by creating a cycle with different figures. He created a never-ending waterfall in Waterfall (see Picture Gallery), or even lizards that crawled out of a tessellation, around the page, then back into the tessellation, as in Reptiles (see Picture Gallery). The eye follows these cycles to see where they go and they always end up back where they began. This causes viewers to look around the whole picture without their consent, which also helped make Escher successful. Another way he showed movement was by using large curving or swirling lines which the eye also naturally followed. An excellent example of this is seen in the picture titled Whirlpools (see Picture Gallery).

Like movement, Escher also applied the principle of rhythm to his pieces to help move the eye around. Creating rhythm could be achieved by repeating shapes or colors, and also by alternating darks and lights, or objects of different sizes. In essence, rhythm is simply creating an artistic beat, or pattern, which was the focus of Escher's tessellations. One piece which portrays rhythm wonderfully is Cycle (see Picture Gallery).

Two other elements that Escher put a huge emphasis on were shape and form. When Escher created tessellations, shape was undoubtedly his main focus. He was only allowed to use width and height when creating these interlocking patterns. Yet, in his geometrical figures and his impossible structures, form was the main focus, far over shape. If these objects were only two-dimensional, the illusions he attempted to present would not be seen – the third dimension was necessary in order to portray the picture accurately.

Another element that helped define Escher's work was his clever use of space. In his tessellations, he did an excellent job of utilizing every bit of space on the page. In these patterns, the negative space (the area outside of the object) of one object was the body of another object, and that objects negative space was the body of another object, and so forth. This can be seen in Sky and Water I (see Picture Gallery) where birds and fish seem to blend together. He also used the space around objects, or the space they took up, to emphasize or frame some other part of the picture, which could in turn become the focus.

Harmony and repetition are a couple other principles that were emphasized in Escher's work. By repeating lines, colors, shapes or forms, movement, rhythm, contrast and value, Escher created certain themes for each of his individual pieces which added an element of harmony to all of his work.

By viewing Escher's work and analyzing it according to several important elements of merit worthy art, there is no question that Escher was an incredibly skillful artist. Escher was able to implement value, contrast, balance, symmetry, line, movement, rhythm, shape, form, space, and harmony into his work, and in each category, he did something fantastic to prove his artwork worthy of technical merit.

Aside from these basic principles, there are also several different concepts, styles, and themes that Escher applied in his artwork. The different types of drawings that Escher created incorporated styles such as tessellations, unlimited spaces, spatial rings and spirals, polyhedrons, reflections and mirror images, flat vs. spatial objects, odd perspectives, and impossible structures. Each one of these different styles served as a way for him to share some of his different ideas and philosophies (Taschen Books).

Escher enjoyed working with illusions and a large part of his work was dedicated to these. He liked to force people to think, and one surefire way of accomplishing this was by creating scenes that couldn't exist. Escher also loved the concept of infinity or endlessness and he demonstrated this through some of his different pieces. At first glance, these drawings strike little more than a visual interest, but as one looks deeper, they begin to reflect on the feeling associated with the awareness of eternity.

Along with sharing his concepts and ideas, Escher also used his artwork to attempt to portray things he had seen in his dreams, though, he was never able to put on paper all that he saw in his mind. One of Escher's children once recalled, “ …father had always a feeling of disappointment, of not having been able to depict adequately his thoughts. After all his efforts, how far short of the originally so lucid and misleading simple idea did this result fall!” (Robertson, O'Connor). On the same topic, Escher once said; “What I give form to in daylight is only one percent of what I have seen in darkness” (Schattschneider).

The most well known use of Escher's different themes was his incorporation of tessellated patterns into his drawings. He became most strongly interested in this style of art after visiting the Alhambra for the second time in 1936. Escher was a master of these complex, symmetrical drawings and he created scenes using anything from simple four legged creatures to interlocking angels and demons continuing outwards towards infinity, as in Circle Limit IV (see Picture Gallery).

Tessellations are very difficult to create because of the geometrical preciseness needed to interlock the patterns. Yet, Escher did not just simply draw basic tessellated patterns; he incorporated them into much of his artwork and even went as far as morphing tessellations together. He enjoyed experimenting with them to show his own philosophies and theories as in Whirlpools (see Picture Gallery), where he created two swirling tessellations bound together by an s-shaped spiral, or as in Circle Limit III (see Picture Gallery), where the tessellated pattern diminishes in size as it stretches outward towards the edge of the circle. Designs like these were repeated often in Escher's work and through these pieces, he was able to reveal some of his ideas about the concept of endlessness.

Aside from tessellations, Escher also explored the idea of unlimited spaces. With these drawings, he was able to compliment the notion of infinity that he portrayed with tessellations. In drawings such as Depth (see Picture Gallery), Escher depicted a never-ending line of geometrical, torpedo-like fish fading off into nothingness. This was another one of the ways that he shared his concept of endlessness. Escher focused on this style in the mid 1950's, just after his peak work with tessellations.

Not long after Escher's work with unlimited spaces, he implemented the style of spatial rings and spirals. Through these drawings, he was able to show cycles, that, when followed by the eye, would lead from point ‘a' to point ‘a,' repeating forever. Two great examples of this type of drawing are Moebius Band II, and Bond of Union (see Picture Gallery).

Of Escher's different styles of drawing, his work with polyhedrons may have been the most mathematical of all. It is quite amazing that a man who failed mathematics was able to create such geometrically complex drawings as Tetrahedral Planetoid, and Order and Chaos (see Picture Gallery) using only basic drawing tools (Ernst). Impressively, most of this work was done during the late 1940's, which was before he had much contact with mathematicians and different mathematical theories.

Escher also created several pieces where he experimented with reflections and mirror images. He produced these drawings at random times throughout his career and through them showed a point of view not often taken by artists. Perhaps, the most well-known of these drawings is his 1935 print, Hand with Reflecting Globe (see Picture Gallery). Though, Escher did few drawings like this, he favored the use of the globe because he was able to show all six sides of a room in the sphere's reflection.

Another concept that Escher included in his art was the conflict between flat and spatial objects. These drawings were the first step towards illusionary art that he created. The focus of these pieces conveyed the clash between two and three-dimensional objects, perhaps a problem that Escher encountered himself when he attempted to create a believable third-dimension on a flat plane. His most famous piece from this category is the picture Drawing Hands (see Picture Gallery). In this picture, he depicts two hands rising up out of a tacked down piece of paper drawing one another.

Perhaps, some of Escher's most intriguing portraits were a result of his exploration into the concept of perspective. In these pieces, he stretched reality and violated all laws of physics. For instance, in House of Stairs (see Picture Gallery), the ground of one level is a vertical wall of the floor below it, and so forth. An even more fascinating scene is that in Relativity (see Picture Gallery), where each of the picture's members live under a different gravitational force. On the top staircase, two members are walking in the same direction on the same staircase, yet one is going up the stairs and the other is going down the stairs. Another wonderful piece that falls into this category is High and Low (see Picture Gallery), where Escher creates a building that is in five-point perspective – the sky is both above and below the ground and the ceiling is also the floor.

One more type of drawing that Escher created, possibly the most fun of all of his styles to look at, was impossible structures. The most illusionary of his work, these pieces would cause any viewer to take a second or even third look. In most pictures by most artists, there is a scene of some sort presented on a two dimensional sheet of paper where the picture could only really exist when the third dimension is added. For example, the drawing Still Life with Reflecting Globe (see Picture Gallery) could only actually exist if taken into the real world where the third dimension of depth is in existence. But impossible structures such as Waterfall (see Picture Gallery), where water runs upstream to the top of the waterfall from which it fell, can exist only on paper; they are physically impossible to create in a real three-dimensional world.

Because Escher used so many different styles, he appealed to many different kinds of people while still remaining true to what he felt he needed to create. Because most of his work conflicts with human logic, viewers have been forced to think about what they are looking at, which helped make Escher successful.

Another aspect of Escher's work that helped bring him success is that he placed objects in his prints that were out of place and fun to look at. For example, in Order and Chaos (see Picture Gallery), he depicts a perfect dodecahedron enclosed in a translucent sphere, which would be very boring to look at if it were by itself. Yet, he places small, broken objects around the outside of the figure to captivate the attention of the viewer and help pull their eye around the entire page. Another drawing in which he does this is House of Stairs (see Picture Gallery). In this drawing, he places creatures which he calls “curl-ups” all over the page which makes the picture more exciting and adds a playful tone to it.

Though, Escher had a strong disliking for mathematics and claimed repeatedly that he was not a mathematician, his work was undoubtedly mathematically based. So much that until the 1950's, mathematicians held more interest in his art than other artists and art collectors did. At one of his lectures in 1953, Escher said, “I have often felt closer to people who work scientifically [though I certainly do not do so myself] than to my fellow artists” (Robertson, O'Connor).

Another interesting fact about Escher's art is that many of his prints have appeared all over; his work has been placed on stamps, currency, book covers, album covers, wallpaper, postcards, various advertisements, and so on. Because his work is found in so many places, many people have seen many of his drawings and don't even know it. For instance, one of his sketches appeared on the cover of a math book from my high school, and the picture Circle Limit IV (see Picture Gallery) is found on the inside cover of one of the math books used at this college.

I have been interested in the work of M.C. Escher since I was in the fifth grade, which is where I first saw the two drawings Waterfall (see Picture Gallery) and Drawing Hands (see Picture Gallery). I was fascinated with the precision and reality that was portrayed in these illusionary pieces and immediately fell in love with them. Since then, I have spent much time studying, analyzing, and enjoying Escher's work

Along with being an incredible artist, Escher was able to share his thoughts and theories along with many foreign concepts through his artwork. Through his different artistic themes, he revealed new worlds, impossibilities becoming reality, and several other complex concepts to influence his viewers to think. The mathematics that he applied in his work were totally unbelievable, and though, he considered himself to be far from a mathematician, his work has been proven to be mathematically correct, “absolutely to the millimeter” (Robertson, O'Connor). He cunningly used important elements of merit worthy art and he created some of the most incredible tessellated and illusionary drawings ever. Escher was indeed an artist who greatly contributed to the art world; he broke through boundaries never before imagined and opened a whole new door for the concept of art.























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